I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but WINTER is coming. For those of us who live in a place where winter means endless months of below zero temps, raging snow and ice storms and frustration; this could be the most depressing news of the season. Here is the good news: it doesn’t mean that you need to hole up for six months until the weather improves and the snow melts. Hiking friends… it’s time to embrace the wonders of the winter adventure.
Cold is not so cold if you are not afraid of it.—The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder
I was a skeptic at first, but winter trekking and camping is becoming something I look forward to and enjoy. Winter means less crowds on the trail, solitude at campsites, a completely different landscape to enjoy and pushing your limits and expanding your experiences in the outdoors. The tranquility of a still winter forest, the beauty of the sun’s warmth on a cold day or the crunch of footprints through the snow’s crust are just a few special moments you could enjoy on a winter day on the trail.
It’s no secret that winter ups the ante for danger in the backcountry. But proper planning, expectation management and preparedness can ensure that safety is at the forefront of your next adventure. No one likes to be cold, or wet, or both. Let me share some advice on how to plan for a winter excursion (tried, tested and true) so I can get you on the trail and ENJOYING your winter adventures:
1. Find fun friends to adventure with: The hardest part of the winter adventure (in my opinion) is finding people awesome (crazy?) enough to go with you. I love this article by backpacker magazine “How to convince your friends to go winter camping.”
I’m all for solo-adventuring, but winter camping (especially for beginners) is something that should be undertaken with others. Sharing a tent will keep you warmer, sharing the load (which gets heavier when you need more gear), sharing the bottle of whisky before you go to bed … you know.. for those reasons… plus safety.
2. Get Good Sleeping Gear: The investment of good quality, cold weather gear is a lifetime investment.. you will need to remind yourself of this when you empty your piggy bank. Save your cash, do your research and invest in the right gear. Be realistic of the kinds of winter treks you will be taking and what temps you may be facing. Down bags are my choice for compressibility, warmth and weight. I pair my Marmot Ouray 0 degree down bag with a sea to summit thermolite extreme liner when temps threaten to dip below zero degrees F. Your sleeping pad is equally important. Bear Grylls reminds us that: a layer underneath is as good as two on top. What he means is that we lose most of our body heat to the cold ground. I pair my 3 season insulated air sleeping pad with a reflective foam mat for added warmth. A good bag and pad will be the difference between a long, cold, sleepless night and a comfortable cozy night.
3. On your feet: Aside from packing plenty of warm wool socks, you will want a pair of waterproof, winter hiking boots when trekking outdoors (regular hiking boots may not have the insulation required for cold temps). Most boots also have a listed warmth rating. Attached to those boots, you are going to want a pair of snowshoes to make deep snow trekking more manageable. Cross country skis could also work depending on the trails and snow depth. Don’t forget the gaiters to keep the snow out of your boots.
4. Know the importance of layers and staying dry: You may immediately think that putting on every layer you have is the best choice to avoid the cold. Remember that pushing through 4 feet of snow with 50 pounds on your back is going to have you working up a sweat. Dress in layers (wicking layers, no cotton) so you can layer up or down as soon as you start to cool off or warm up. Don’t ever get drenched in sweat. This is what is going to make you dangerously cold later when you slow down. Check out this great article by REI on how to layer properly for winter. Pack dry, warm clothes to put on at night. For me this also includes my down puffy which I don’t wear while active during the day but put on as soon as I get to camp, in combination with other warm layers.
5. Know how the cold will affect your gear: Part of having the right gear is knowing how the cold affects it. Stoves for example: canister stoves may not work (or not function as efficiently) in cold temps. Liquid fuel stoves are far more predictable. Batteries die quickly in the cold. Water filters can freeze and break. Frozen boots are impossible to put on or tie. Staking out your tent is a bit tricky. Plan ahead so these cold weather idiosyncrasies won’t throw you off.
6. Water problems: If snow is on the ground you’ve got it made, water is all around you. Though it requires packing more fuel, melting and boiling snow for water is my preferred method for water during the winter. Another winter challenge is keeping your drinking water from freezing. I usually put a bottle of boiling water at the bottom of my sleeping bag before bed to 1) keep me warm at night and 2) have non-frozen, drinkable water for the morning. A simple water bottle insulator is a handy investment also.
7. This is the time to pack extras: Winter is no time for ultralight but it is the time for critical packing. Make sure you have a good supply of dry, warm clothes. Extras like spare gloves, a water bottle you can put boiling water in, hot beverages and those hand and foot warmers are like GOLD. Many winter adventurers will rig up a sled to haul the extra heavy gear over long distances in the snow.
8. Picking the perfect place – You want to find a trail with an equal mix of visual interest (so you get so amazed by the landscape you forget about the cold) and ease of navigation (because navigating during winter can be way more difficult when the trail and the signs are buried in snow). Trails with water or rock features are spectacular during the winter when covered with snow and ice. Remember when planning your hike, it generally takes about 3 times as long to cover miles and do regular camp tasks.
Plan and pack the right gear and do your research. Being prepared is the best defense against the cold (this means knowing weather conditions and other useful things such as recognizing signs of hypothermia in yourself and your pals). Start out small with day trips by ski or snowshoe to test your layers and gear. And remember: just because it’s cold outside… doesn’t mean you have to be! The wonders of winter trekking and camping will awaken your mind to another season of adventures.